26 Feb 24

Automakers preparing for a watershed moment

There’s hardly a zero-emission technology travelling a cobblier road than hydrogen transportation. Still, a critical number of automotive OEMs are embracing the energy vector, though the underlying trend shifts towards commercial vehicles with a handful of courageous startups trying to seize their moment.

Among the car makers like GM, Honda and BMW investing in hydrogen technology, Toyota and Hyundai take the lead. With the Mirai, the recently launched Crown and Nexo, they have the only FCEV passenger cars on the market, though major discounts drive their extremely limited success while future development is stalling. In Germany, home to Europe’s largest hydrogen network, only 238 FCEVs were sold in 2023, less than three per fueling station (88), according to data from Marklines.

Toyota intends to shift its efforts to the commercial segment, where the shortage of public infrastructure is easier countered by in situ instalments at depot-based fleets. It believes that for commercial vehicles, it can slash the development cost in half and increase efficiency by 20%.

Third-party suppliers

Toyota, which also implements hydrogen in combustion engines for niche applications like racing, is developing its new-generation technology around the pick-up truck Hilux. The company’s fuel cell is also used by its technical partner, BMW, running a pilot fleet of the SUV iX5 Hydrogen as a test case, primarily focused on arousing customer interest around the globe.

Following Toyota’s track are Stellantis and Renault, offering light commercial FCEV vehicles entrenched in a compound system, where third-party suppliers deliver refuelling facilities. In the UK, Vauxhall partners with Ryze, and Renault has a partnership with PlugPower, at least partly solving the chicken-and-egg conundrum of insufficient infrastructure hampering fleet adoption.   

Having inaugurated its separate fuel cell system brand, HTWO, Hyundai aims at the most holistic approach imaginable, reaching beyond vehicles with the manufacture of megawatt electrolyzers for green hydrogen production and focusing on the waste-to-hydrogen method, where the energy carrier is extracted from organic waste and even plastic. The reasoning is that selling FCEV vehicles is inextricably linked to abundant green hydrogen.

The tantalizing prospect of hydrogen mobility, backed by billion-euro government investments like in China, South Korea or France, doesn’t fail to attract startups. In France, the struggle of nascent car maker Hopium has been countered by the company NamX and its HUV, which runs an internal combustion engine on hydrogen. Interestingly, this SUV features a stack of refilling capsules ordered by a subscription model. There’s no lack of unique selling propositions, but whether these can outperform the development of more efficient battery technologies remains doubtful. 

Read more on our E-Book From hydrogen to EV


Authored by: Piet Andries